Loneliness Could Share Genetic Link With Obesity, Scientists Find

Loneliness is often thought of as a byproduct of life circumstances, but new research shows that this silent epidemic could be influenced by genetic variations that are also linked to obesity. This means that shedding some pounds might temper loneliness, researchers said.

Scientists at the University of Cambridge discovered a genetic link between being overweight and social isolation. The research that was published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications is the first to show a causal link between loneliness and obesity, and it could give medical practitioners insight into how to treat two the common conditions.

"There is always a complex mix of genes and environment, but it does suggest that at a population level, if we could tackle obesity we would be able to bring down loneliness as well" John Perry, a senior scientist at Cambridge University, told The Telegraph.

While loneliness may be a growing public health threat, possibly equal to that of obesity or smoking, there is a distinct difference between loneliness and being alone, which may have some benefits of its own. https://t.co/m0FUlb5Lsj

— American Psychological Association (@APA) January 13, 2018

About half of all Americans feel lonely, according to a recent national survey, carried out by the health insurer Cigna. About 54 percent of participants said they felt like no one actually knew them well. One in four Americans, 27 percent, said they rarely or never felt as though there were people who really understood them. These results were collected from 20,000 adult participants.

Last year, the American Psychological Association declared loneliness an "epidemic" and said it could be a greater threat to public health than obesity. Now, it appears like the two conditions could be related.

The Cambridge researchers looked at genetic variation in 487,647 participants who answered a questionnaire about their perceived loneliness, how often they interact with other people and the quality of their social lives.

Scientists then studied the individuals who reported feeling lonely and found variations in their DNA at 15 genetic locations.

They also noticed that the same genetic areas were similar for participants who are overweight, and are linked to an area in the brain associated with emotional self-regulation.

The study then found that certain genes make it more likely that people will be more engaged in social activities. For instance, some 13 genetic variations predicted whether people go to a bar or social club at least once a week, and 18 are linked to people feeling drawn religious groups.

"We often think that loneliness is driven purely by our surrounding environment and life experiences, but this study demonstrates that genes can also play a role," Perry said.